Cartoons and racism

As girls growing up with Disney-promises of our very own Prince Charmings, it is understandably hard for us to accept it when someone who resembles Shrek tends to be the type of reality that we are faced with. This disillusionment all stems from the power that a cartoon can wield over us as young children. It is a sad day when you return to your childhood heroes and realize that you were, for all intents and purposes, being brainwashed. The disappointment of never actually meeting a musical lobster or a chivalrous prince is nothing compared to the dismay we, or at least I, felt when recently re-watching many of the old classics.

I’m talking about stereotypes. From the deleted line in my all-time favorite Disney film Aladdin which, when talking about an Arab country reveals “Where they’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face” to the stereotypical African-American portrayal of the Dumbo crows, these cartoons offer little cultural insight.

Before the ‘over-sensitive’ label stuck on my forehead let me discuss one particular cartoon that will demonstrate the reason for my indignation. I’m talking about the Sunflower centaur character in the animation film Fantasia. This scene depicts a young, black female centaur polishing the hooves of a considerably more elegant and quintessentially Aryan centaur. This scene was eventually banned.

Typecasting specific communities or cultures into particular roles is nothing new. After learning Spanish, I returned to the old Speedy Gonzales cartoons only to find that the characters were, in fact, speaking a Hispanicized version of English.  The fact that these cartoons show little regard for the communities they represent is symbolic for the lack of awareness about cultural misconceptions and provides an explanation to the casual racial slurs that surface in society.

I went to a particularly stuffy, if otherwise wonderful, university where offhand comments about race or culture were commonplace and acceptable. On one occasion a lecturer took one look at the Arabic that remained on the whiteboard from the previous class and remarked that “It’s probably about terrorism”. Alone, this hardly sounds like a criminal offense, but by making such a remark, this lecturer effectively justified the contempt for diversity that is so widespread in an English town where there are more town halls than there are minorities.

Generalizations, whilst entertaining, are often dangerous over-simplifications that, without contextualization, have and will continue to wax the slippery slope that leads to validating what essentially are bigoted snapshots of race.

More contextualization and understanding is needed for children in order for them to understand the true weight of such powerful images so that they grown up to realize that the N-word is not acceptable and that not all Arabs are terrorists. Although it might sound like these statements are obvious, these are the types of lessons I found myself teaching some of my peers at university.